Thursday, June 15, 2017

Impossible Mission

"I reckon the folks'd be a sight happier if I died like a soldier. Can't say I would."

Samson Posey (Clint Walker)

I've been fortunate. I've never had to fight in a war.

When I was a kid, I guess I expected to be in a war. The war in Vietnam had been raging as far back as I could remember, and as I got older, I guess I assumed that my time to go would come in due course. I never really thought twice about it. But the war ended well before I turned 18.

If I had been in a war, though, I would probably assume that, if command wanted to attempt a truly extreme mission, they would want really extreme people to carry it out — you know, murderers, rapists and the like.

"The Dirty Dozen," which premiered 50 years ago today, was about such a mission — and such a unit.

In advance of the D–Day invasion, a select unit of the Army's worst was assembled for a special mission — to assault a chateau that was hosting a meeting of high–ranking German officers. By eliminating these officers, the Nazis' ability to react to the invasion of Normandy would be severely thwarted.

It was a hazardous mission, but these men were regarded as expendable. At best they had been convicted of crimes for which they had been given sentences of at least 20 years. Nearly half had been given death sentences.

If they succeeded in their objective, those who survived would be pardoned and returned to active duty, but few were expected to survive, successful or not. Their commander (Lee Marvin) repeatedly reminded them during their training that most of them would not be returning.

And that was OK, too.

After all, if they died in this mission, they would die a soldier's death. On the other hand, if their death sentences were carried out, they would die by hanging — definitely not a soldier's death. Hanging is typically regarded as a criminal's death.

And in the meantime they would have to be fed, clothed and sheltered for who knew how long.

Of course, one would be just as dead either way. It was the method of death that would pass the final judgment on the life. Everything else was incidental.

At the time of its release some people criticized the violence in "The Dirty Dozen," and a pretty good case could be made that it was excessively violent, needlessly so, particularly at the end. But isn't that the nature of war? Isn't war — all war whatever one may think of the rationale for it — excessively violent, needlessly so?

When you get right down to it, war is messy, and the people who fight in wars don't always play by the generally accepted rules.

"The Dirty Dozen" had an all–star cast, but some of the performers were more memorable than others — like Donald Sutherland and Jim Brown and Telly Savalas — and Ernest Borgnine, who played the officer who appointed Marvin and Bronson and provided them with the list of convicts they would train.

You know, the violence probably was a little over the line, but, as I say, war is messy, and the mission wasn't carried out by a Sunday school class.

A seemingly impossible mission calls for incorrigible people to carry it out.